Travel

Sutton Hoo? Home of buried ancient treasure

Pauline Sabin Moore, originally from Africa, has lived in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, 51 years and taught English there. Moore, 76, is the author of two novels: “Storm Frost” and the recently published “Brightfire: A Tale of Sutton Hoo” (www.suttonhoonovels.co.uk). Both books are set in early Anglo-Saxon times. The famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site is nearby.

In 1939, remnants of a buried ship were discovered at Sutton Hoo; judging by the treasures and armor aboard it, the vessel had held the body of a powerful leader who died circa A.D. 600.

Q. What does your part of eastern England look like?

A. Woodbridge is about a 10-minute drive from Sutton Hoo, across a pretty river called the Deben. I’m up on a hill, on the edge of town. Woodbridge is only 8 or 9 miles from the North Sea, so you get that coastal feeling.

Sutton Hoo itself is on a big, open green heathland in an area called the Sandlings.

Q. You’re a volunteer guide at Sutton Hoo. What can be seen there?

A. You go up what used to be a farm road; the site had been a farm. There’s a visitor center with a shop and cafe. There’s an exhibition hall with exhibits, including a re-creation of the buried ship that has life-size models of the king and some of the treasures around him. There’s a very, very good treasury room that has replicas of the great treasure.

Q. Can you go to the actual burial mound site?

A. Yes, it’s about a 10-minute walk along a wooded pathway with a lovely view over the river.

The original ship was 30 meters (about 98.5 feet) long and was buried 10 feet below the ground. A roof was built over the ship, and a mound was placed over the roof. You get the impression of what the mound would have looked like – there are other grassy mounds here, some are larger than others – but the great ship’s site has been excavated and reconstructed.

You can only go to the mound sites on a guided tour. It’s all open-air with maybe 18 visible mounds. There are some marker pebbles to show where one archaeologist found bodies deep in the soil – 37 bodies in all.

Q. Is Sutton Hoo still an active dig?

A. No. The first digging was just before World War II started. Then it was excavated in the 1960s; no significant finds were made but they proved there had been in a body in the ship. Sand is very acidic and eats away organic material, but they found human chemicals.

Q. But no DNA?

A. No. That’s a problem at Sutton Hoo.

Q. The most important artifacts from the ship burial are in London in the British Museum. What are the best items on display here?

A. The most iconic is the great helmet of Sutton Hoo, which everybody recognizes. The original, in the British Museum, is rotted away and rusted. What you see here is a reconstruction that shows what it originally looked like. It was made of tinned bronze, with gold ornaments that show a great eagle and dragons. There are garnets on it; it’s a wonderful piece.

There’s a very mysterious object – a very hard, gray stone that stands like a pillar. Its length is from fingertip to elbow. It has heads carved at the top and bottom – a wonderful piece of geometric work. At the top is a wonderful bronze stag. It was a holy stone, perhaps, but remains a mystery. It must have been important: It was found right behind where the head of the king was on the burial ship.

Q. What’s the bottom-line importance of Sutton Hoo?

A. You’re looking at things from what has been called the Dark Ages. But the more you look at the craftsmanship and beauty of the jewelry and regalia, the more you can see the work of very sophisticated, skilled craftsmen who had a profound sense of beauty and spirituality. We’re the ones in the dark, not them.

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